Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Extreme everything

BEFORE leaving on my trip to India, my friend, who was holidaying in Kolkata at the time, told me that the country would change me. His three-week holiday trekking through the Motherland had helped him find peace within himself and humbled him.
“Didn’t India impact on you in any way?” he asked on my return.
“I’m not sure,” I replied, contemplating. “It made me want to work at becoming extremely rich.”
“To help the poor?”
I wanted that to be the reason, but it wasn’t.
India is a land full of juxtapositions. Three-thousand-year-old temples stand next to modern high-rise buildings, which in turn border on to dilapidated squalor. The poorest of the poor walk the streets, while the country develops rapidly to the benefit of the rich. In Mumbai approximately 50 flyovers were built in the past six years and our tour guide told us about Mukesh Ambani, who has a helicopter pad at the top of his 27-storey house. Apparently, he bought his wife her own helicopter for her birthday.
In Rajkot, where my extended family lives, a whole new city has been built in the past 10 years and is referred to as new Rajkot. When we arrived at their home, I was welcomed into a white-painted skyscraper and their newly acquired luxury apartments (yes, they bought two). I was in awe when I visited their more humble beginnings — a matchbox house attached to a street of matchbox houses. They used to cook, eat and sleep on the floor, but now they have eight bedrooms in just one of their three properties.
Driving to Haridwar, farmers dried cattle dung in preparation for the monsoon while the horizon was being invaded by new skyscrapers, apartments and hotels. Almost every city is moving forward expeditiously with metros being built that are as smooth and as clean as the Gautrain, new airports, new roads, new apartments and new hotels, and accompanied with all the development is a more modern way of living.
My mother made me carry around Indian attire for visiting temples, but at Akshardam, a massive Swaminarayan temple in Delhi, I noticed that most people were wearing jeans rather than traditional Indian wear. Everything in India is changing and the country is developing at a speed that very few places can challenge.
In Mumbai, approximately 65% of the population is poverty-stricken but because religion plays a huge role in their lives, the poor accept their situation with many believing that it is their karma. Our Mumbai tour guide told us that the poor don’t receive money from the government, only education and health care, so to survive, they have to do something. The resourcefulness and ingenuity used to do something to make money is admirable, even if it is merely to con tourists and sell them things that they don’t need.
While in Delhi, I was in awe at the many ways they could make money just using a bicycle. Apart from loading it with an inconceivable amount of goods to deliver or sell, one man on the side of the street had built a type of shop, in the form of a box, around his bicycle and used it to sell small things like sweets and garlands. In Old Delhi, bicycle tyres were used to hold wooden planks to make a type of table to hold goods to sell. Beggars latched onto your legs and followed you around until you gave in. In India, even the dogs know how to beg. While walking through Rajiv Chowk (formerly called Connaught Place) in New Delhi, I saw a dog walk up to two tourists, roll over onto its back by their feet and whimper.
Rishikesh was strewn with people sleeping on the streets. Some would dress up like sages and proclaim to be able to read your palm or future or forehead just to make some money. Others would grab your hand and tie a sacred string for you while praying and then ask for money.
India is such a diverse place there is no way to blanket the experience of it. For many, it would be a shock to the system — the extreme culture, the extreme poverty, the extreme noise, the extreme chaos, the extreme everything. There is even an extreme amount of police and security everywhere after all the attacks on the country. I sometimes had to undergo three security checks before entering monuments, malls or airports. India is an experience, good or bad, life changing or not. My dad says that India is a university everyone should visit, a place where you learn about life and about yourself. If anything, it teaches you that there is always a way to get through the hardest of hardships, even when every possibility seems bleak.

Check out my video below for images from my experience of India.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A simple life with many gadgets

Location: Rajkot

As the pink hue of the sunset slowly fades, silhouettes of figures standing on their roofs with their kites wafting in the still air can still be seen; its like Diwali in Reservoir Hills but instead of fireworks, there are kites. It's Uttarayan (International Kite Festival), a public holiday on which everything closes and everyone, rich or poor, at least attempts to fly a kite. Broken kites or kites that had been cut by another kite (a game that they play) hang from the trees and street lights or lie discarded on the streets.

My dad told me to be prepared to sleep on the floor as our plane landed in Rajkot.  The airport looked like Pietermaritzburg airport, if not smaller, so i expected to eat on the floor, bath outside and perhaps even tackle a long drop.

As my uncle drove us to their home, my dad didn't seem to recognise his  home town, which he had visited twice before over ten years ago. Then we drove into a huge complex, walked up marble tiled stairs and entered an exquisite modern-styled apartment that gleamed as brightly as the five star hotel.

In the last ten years, Gujarat has developed rapidly and, like most cities in India, Rajkot now consists of an old Rajkot and a new Rajkot. Like Delhi, new Rajkot has wider tarred roads, skyscraper apartments and International branded stores like Blackberry, Subway and Reebok while old Rajkot has narrow, uneven roads, littered with cows roaming around and multitudes of small street shops. Houses look like little cement boxes, blackened with age, each like the next with the remains of old writing and chipped paint distinguishing them.

My uncle took his family (of around 20 people) and I to their old house to celebrate Uttarayan. By lunch time, most of the boys had hands covered in cuts and after some arrangement (that I didn't understand because everyone here only speaks Gujarathi) it was decided that we would have a picnic lunch on a friends farm.

When we arrived at the farm I didn't understand why everyone had been excited about going there. It was just a house on a farm... With locked doors, an empty pool  and no amazing view. As they sat on the floor on the porch digging happily into their food I realised that, despite all the modern influences and latest technology that engulfed their lives, they still contained the same values and enjoyed the same simple pleasures that they did in their matchbox house in old Rajkot.

And that's the main difference between Indians in India and Indians everywhere else in the world - the global Indian is scared of losing their culture and hang on to it as tightly as they can but the Bharat Indian embraces the contemporary world and walks along with it...

Friday, January 13, 2012

Some of the interesting places I've visited

Location: Delhi airport

1. Akshardham Temple, Delhi
The Swaminarayan temple spreads over 100 arces of land of which approximately 40 arces has been built upon inspired by ancient Hindu architecture. It is one of the most magnificent temples that i have seen. In one arc alone, at the entrance of the temple, there are around 860 sculptures of the peacock, the national bird of India and a symbol often seen on the walls of ancient Hindu temples, many of which have been ruined by the various invasions in India. The temple aims to preserve the religion and all the images, deities, symbols and animals have been careful placed to make every wall, pillar, dome and arc contain a message or story. Apart from the mandir (temple), there is also an indoor boatride on India, a imax-type film on an 11 year old Yogi's unbelievable pilgrimage through India, a walk through hall that contains stories of values as portrayed by the life of Swaminarayan, a lotus garden with various quotes on God and a garden with sculptures of various great people who made an impact in India's history. In the evenings, there is also a breathtaking musical fountain with the lights and water timed so perfectly that it really seems as if the water is dancing. It is extremely peaceful and inspiring. One might wonder what the need is to build such massive and extravagant temples in today's society but, built in just five years, it contains a colossol wealth of knowledge about Hinduism that will leave you in awe. Unfortunately, all bags, cameras and cellphones are stored by security while on the grounds of Akshardam so you would have to google it for images.

2. The lotus temple, Delhi
In India, most of the heritage monuments are either temples, mausoleums or museums. There are about eight different religious groups in India and religion plays an important role in the lives of the people here. Commonly known as the lotus temple due to its shape, the Bahá'í House of Worship is a temple open to all religions. There was a mini service, if I can call it that, while I was there and as the speakers spoke and the singers sang, their words seemed to move around you In concentric circles. It personifies peace and tranquility and is an amazing spot for some morning yoga... I'm not sure if that is allowed.

3. Amber Fort, Jaipur
Maybe it was the morning elephant ride but I found this old palace interesting and beautiful. It is where many Rajput kings and their families lived and i spent over three hours there and took over 200 photos. I was fascinated but it was also the first palace/fort that i had seen and the first time that I had learnt about the ancient mechanics involved in creating a cooler Summer palace and a warmer Winter palace without simply purchasing an airconditioner and a heater.

4. Ganga Aarti, Haridwar
One word: wow. I honestly don't know how to describe what it was like to experience this famous India ritual...

5. The Indira Gandhi museum, Delhi
I'm not at all interested in politics so I won't even pretend to have had this on my India to-do list. There's just something about walking through a person's house who has long passed away and who has made such an impact on peoples lives that moves you whether or not you knew about that person or the mark they made in history. One of the glass cases in the museum, once her house, lies the sari that she wore when she was shot alongside her bag and sandals. The museum also contains elements from Rajiv Gandhi's life in the areas of the house that he once occupied, ending the journey of his life with the shreds that remained of his clothes after the bombing in which he was killed.

6. Old Delhi, Delhi
I hate to add this here but visiting old Delhi, as its called, was quite anexperience. Its thousands of years old and contains the most common image of India: chaotic slum. To walk across the street I had to climb over motorbike wheels because the multitude of vehicles were so close together that there was no pathway to cross. There was always endless hooting with street hawkers screaming above the noise to sell their mechandise and people screaming above them to hear each other. Our tour guide described it as the place tourists came to see... A type of culture maintained and put on display to aid tourism rather than an area that needs to be restored and developed... With India developing so rapidly, it feels wrong to add this as one of the interesting places that I visited, but it really was.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The city of Love

Location: Agra

When talking about visiting India, almost everyone mentions Agra.
"You have to see the Taj Mahal, it's the most beautiful thing you will ever see!" they exclaim. Our tour guide in Delhi described it as "a simple portrayal of how beautiful Mumtaz was" but whatever the impression it leaves, its the place you HAVE to see if in India.

When a random guy in Jaipur helped me get an auto, he went on about Agra, the city he was from, and exclaimed that it was the city of love. "isn't that Paris?" I asked cynically. I was later told that Agra was in fact India's city of love...

If I said seen the Taj Mahal years ago, without having studied it from its inception in art history in school and without being exposed to the masses of images taken of it and the masses of replicas made of it, I may have been gobsmacked at the sight of it. But as I walked through the gate after three security checks, being pushed around like a ping pong ball by the throngs of people who were there to bask in its brilliance, my first impression of it was, "it looks just like the photos".

Sure, it is beautiful and the flawless symmetry and unbelievable delicacy of the relief sculpture in the marble is spellbinding... But after visiting many monuments and buildings in India, the Taj Mahal seemed like just another amazing reminscence of history that continues to tell the ancient stories, whether true or not, of the people who created them and the times that they lived in.

India is very old and in that time it has faced a multitude of invasions therefore the stories of India have layers upon layers. For example, the Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque, which is considered to be the oldest mosque in Delhi actually contains evidence of ancient Hindu architecture that had been destroyed and covered. This could mean that the mosque was initially once a temple that was transformed after the Islamic conquest of India.

The Taj Mahal, on the other hand, has always been the mausoleum built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The story is woven with tales of undying love, deception and brutality but maybe the Taj would be more moving if the white marble glowed in real life, or sparkled like Twilight vampires... Or if the tales of true love were more believable.

I don't really like Agra. It's small and heavily populated and, after a crazy six hour drive from Jaipur having slid off my seat a couple of times due to the driver's sudden braking and having to endure non stop hooting, the last thing i want to do is face more chaoticness.

Urgh, I'm exhausted. Tomorrow sees us driving for ten hours to Haridwar. Travelling by car seemed like a great way to see India when planning the trip but I wouldn't suggest it to anyone... Maybe a short four hour trip is survivable, but anything longer will make you want to tear your ears out or pop one too many painkillers... Just saying.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Never stay in a 5-star hotel in India

Location: Jaipur

I thought the roads in Delhi were busy; Jaipur adds camels, elephants and horse drawn wagons to the on-tar chaos. However, none of it matters since I'm living it up at the Sheraton Rajputana which comes with a butler, a chauffer and the luxury of not worrying about everything that you eat or drink. Its a needed stop off to wash my hair, pluck my eyebrows and do something about my nails... As well as attend the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas.

Walking through the comfort-saturated halls of the hotel i can barely remember the streets of Delhi; the noises, the smells and the chaos are absorbed by the feather down duvets and the immense friendliness of the hotel staff and their overwhelming willingness to oblige to my every enquiry.

Dining at one of the hotel's three restaurants, I reached for the spoon to dish some malai kofta on to my plate and had two waiters race towards me to seize the spoon from my hand and dish for me. Like whaat!?

Evidently I'm not used to such million dollar treatment, and while it was a delight, it kills India in that removes you from truly experiencing Bharat. Walking along the streets trying to get the attention of an auto or ricksha driver that doesn't understand English and then try to explain how to get to your hotel; fighting off conartists on the streets; falling for the spin of brilliant street salesman... Luxury hotels protect you from all of that. You can practically live in the hotel and never leave and still get some shopping done (the Sheraton has an area with shops that sells everything a tourist would want from Rajasthan), experience the culture and enjoy whatever comforts you wish.

While touring Delhi, our guide described 'old Delhi' as a tourist attraction, adding that the area would never be developed as it would ruin the culture that tourists expected to see. Old Delhi can be described as city squalor - roads are narrow and busy with piles of refuse strewn across everything. Buildings are delapidating and the walls blackened, with water leaking from them and people collecting it to drink.  It is the opposite of new Delhi where there's a metro, skyscrapers and women who work.

It just feels wrong to experience a place like that from five star luxury... Like finishing a playstation game using the online cheat (not that online cheats always work... I'm still trying to solve that damn rubics cube).

That said, I'm really enjoying this... On top of the five star comfort, every night a spectacular event is held for delegates of the conference with a cultural show and dinner. Yesterday was apparently the best with dancers on the roof of a building across a lake from where the delegates sat. Bogged down by the flu, I missed it but the other two were no doubt beautiful. The streets of Jaipur have been decorated with rangoli (a type of folk art often on the floors of houses to welcome guests) and the decor at the designated locations for the conference are so amazing that...

Let's just say that, surrounded by all this beauty and luxury, I'm forgetting that I'm in India... To be honest, it feels more like paradise.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Getting my Hindi on

Location: Delhi

Before embarking on my trip to India, I was bombarded with advice from every single person who had set foot on my apparent Motherland. "India will change you" was as common a message as "don't drink the water" and "don't pay any attention to the beggars".

Engulfed by a thick smog, Delhi left me thinking that I was still in the sky when we landed. The city seemed to be whitewashed as we drove through roads that made me feel like i was still in South Africa and driving in the 'red zones'. I expected India to seem foreign, but nothing really surprises me here and for the first time I understand why many South African Indians still call India home. There's a familiarness and astounding similarities between Indians here and Indians in South Africa.

Even the language buzzing around me makes sense. I have never formally learned Hindi but from my typical Indian childhood i manage to understand more than I thought i would. Within a day i was armed with some basic phrases and bursting to show off.

"Kitne hain?" I asked a shopkeeper, holding up a random object that i found in his store. He chuckled as if sniffing out my foreigness and a scene from some Bollywood film that i had watched aeons ago jumped to mind - an actress that vaguely looked like Madhuri Dixit exclaimed "hota hai hota hai" (which in my head meant 'laugh laugh). Luckily, i didn't respond before he did...

"Pachaas hazaar," he said. 

And there i encountered my first problem with attempting to blend in with the 'natives', they replied in Hindi... Which went beyond my ability to vaguely understand them.

I catch a few words in most conversations, my brain connecting them with arb songs or film scenes that i didn't even think i remembered and bringing about some sort of translation.

Person holding three small boxes: "something something something chooriyan something something"
My brain: *someone dancing and banging their wrists* cha na na na na chooriyan
Me: "ah let's see the bangles that you bought..."

It's amazing... Until people start thinking that i really understand their language and i get trapped in conversations that start going around in circles. In those moments, i search the folders in my head for anything that i can find...

"Me nay bolo Hindi nie"

At one point, I found myself desperately wanting to say 'Angaaz'.

However, in Delhi,most people know some English - if the ricksha doesn't understand you, some passerby will help out and translate. Though the problem is that once people realise that you are a foreigner, they try to con you. I guess it helps that if i keep my mouth closed I look like any other young working local.

By the way, that shopkeeper said that the item i picked up cost fifty thousand rupees. Iheld a shawl in myhands. Either i heard him wrong or he saw through my brownness.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Ten reasons to love driving in Pietermaritzburg

Location: Delhi

Under a blanket wearing earplugs that block my ear drums with my latest go-to-sleep playlist, I can still hear the endless hooting on the streets of India. It’s apparently Road Safety Week here in Delhi but no one seems to notice the men holding up safety tips on the side of the road. In fact, in the last three days I have almost died five times while being driven around in a locomotive (ricksha, auto or car).

I noticed it on day one while being picked up from the airport. A driver cut in front of a car and just stopped mid-cut, taking up almost three lanes in the middle of the road, to pick up a passenger. He got out his car like there was nothing wrong and placed the luggage into his boot at a normal unrushed pace before returning to the driver’s seat and driving off.

"Lane driving is safe driving" read one of the Road Safety Week billboards. A tourist in India wouldn't even know that it was written among the rules and regulations of India roads. No one drives in their lane, they just hoot. A car comes too close, they hoot. A car doesn’t move fast enough, they hoot. A car hoots at them for no reason, they hoot. It’s endless and rings louder than any temple bell or amplified azan.

There are signs everywhere that attempt to end the ceaseless trumpeting on the streets, but to no avail. To drive in India requires the skill to be talented at being talentless and the ability to break all the rules and somehow make that the rule. Even robots counting down the seconds until they turn green don’t stop drivers from driving through red lights. They turn right at a four way stop from the most left lane, they squeeze through any gap that they see and traffic circles... Oh em gee! Traffic circles in India are what it must feel like for a sardine to swim against the shoal during the annual shoal run.

On top of all that chaos, the streets in Delhi are almost always busy with every imaginable vehicle. It’s the type of nightmare you have before the day of your driver’s test or when you are running late for an important appointment. It’s crazy... it's also a way of life here.

In one instance, a cycle rickshaw that we were travelling on rode in the opposite direction of oncoming traffic... A cycle against a tirade of honking cars, autos, trucks, taxis, motorbikes, buses and other bicycles. It was like staring death in the eye and saying, "Marry me!"

In the last year, I have complained endlessly about how pathetic and inconsiderate drivers were in Pietermaritzburg, especially on the Chota Motala Bridge with all the construction going on. There were many incidents that left me infuriated and wanting to lash out at the lawlessness that drivers face on the roads; the lack of courtesy and the overwhelming amount of impatience, intolerance and arrogance. Thinking about it now, driving in South Africa feels like a Solero on these hot summer days.

While India has less serious accidents than South Africa, the stress one experiences just driving a few kms in India would likely give you a heart attack before the age of 40... I came close to one just riding in an auto during peak hour. So, next time someone does something on the roads that twists the hair on your nipples but doesn't kill you, be glad that you aren't driving here.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Planes, gains and my first day India

It's about 7:30 pm in India right now. All I can hear from my hotel is the sound of cars hooting. It really is crazy on the road. Cars do whatever they like. At the airport, this one car just stopped in the middle of the road occupying two lanes to pick up passengers after cutting in front of another car. There's even a sign on the side of the road that reads "staying in your lane can save your life" or something like that. Loccomotives even turn right from the furthest lane on the left in like a three lane two- way road. If you thought traffic circles were a nightmare, try driving in the ones in India! You will never complain about bad driving again.

It took about 24 hours to get to india but then we took a connecting flight in dubai. That airport is crazy! Met some interesting people. Will continue this later thought cos im mad tired.